Dr. Joseph E. Colford, Ph.D. Psychologist and ChildWIN Board Member
The changes in how children and families conduct themselves during these weeks of quarantine have placed enormous burdens on everyone involved. Children no longer have access to those many systems that they have become accustomed to participating in outside the home: schools, play groups, organized sports and other activities, and simple neighborhood gatherings with friends. Similarly, parents now have to remain in close quarters with their children in the absence of such opportunities, having to serve as parent, teacher, and activity director, all with no end in sight. After all, the outside world has always provided other folks to take care of these things which gave everyone on the home front a break from each other.
The issues involved with everyone being together now in such tight surroundings day after day puts an incredible strain on everyone involved, yet it is more than just that that raises other concerns, particularly for organizations such as New Jersey’s own Division of Children and Families (NJ DCF). That is, there are many other repercussions of the enforced lockdown of everyone’s social and financial lives due to the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment and its accompanying financial hardship, increased anxiety over contracting the virus, and the general stress of being socially isolated all contribute significantly to a household’s level of frustration and irritability reaching the boiling point, thus placing children at risk of abuse. As tensions rise, levels of patience and tolerance fall.
Before there were all these social barriers, many children who were victims of abuse, neglect, or other forms of maltreatment were able to be identified by so many other adults in their lives who interacted with them on almost a daily basis: teachers and other school personnel, day care workers, medical personnel such as pediatricians, and other coaches and supervisors of various organized activities. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System reported recently that teachers typically account for approximately 24% of reports of child abuse made to local Child Protective Service agencies; overall, 75% of reports came from professionals in various other fields.
Now without the watchful and wary eyes of these individuals able to keep track of the welfare of children now kept from them, who will be able to identify and report a case of abuse when frustrations do reach the boiling point in some homes? NJ DCF has documented a 32% drop in reports of abuse made to their Child Abuse Hotline in the last year. During summer breaks with children not in school, there also is typically a 20-25% drop in child abuse reporting.
States vary in their requirements about who is responsible for reporting suspicions of child maltreatment to Child Protective Services. In New Jersey, everyone, regardless of their professional or workplace affiliations, is considered a mandated reporter of any suspicion of such things. That is, if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that a child is being abused, they are required to report it to the DCF Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-877-NJABUSE. This phone line is open 24 hours each day, seven days per week. Callers are not required to provide their names; they can do so anonymously.
Parents under significant stress these days also can call for assistance before reaching their breaking point. A 24/7 hotline for them to contact is the Family Hotline at 1-800-THE-KIDS.
Children in the special education system also can be at particular risk for abuse. With a range of services including speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy, counseling, and one-to-one aides guaranteed in their Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs), home isolation can be a special challenge. Their academic, behavioral and emotional challenges which are allayed by these services now are missing from their daily routine, despite some school districts’ best attempts at providing some of them online. Without these services, the best attempts at addressing their needs in the home only can test the patience of the most devoted of parents.
For parents concerned about meeting the needs of their special needs children, there is a 24/7 Peer Support Helpline Program which can be accessed by calling the Mom2Mom Helpline at 1-877-914-6662.
During these trying times, DCF’s campaign rings true: “Social distancing shouldn’t mean social isolation.” Parents are not alone, despite being home-bound. They are encouraged to reach out to friends and family for advice and support, to contact one of the above helplines, or to simply remove themselves from a trying situation with their children, even if just for a few minutes in a quiet room in their home.
Prevent Child Abuse – New Jersey has put together a parent/caregiver resource booklet which contains many other suggestions and resources for people to access during these times. It can be downloaded here.
Joseph E. Colford, Ph.D., NJ Licensed Psychologist
Professor Emeritus, Georgian Court University